My usual goal when I travel is to scout out and explore new places for coverage in The Hideaway Report. But especially in places to which I often return, I find there are sights that, while hardly new, draw me time and again. Such a place is the Rialto fish market in Venice.
At the geographic center of Venice, the Rialto is oldest part of the city. It grew to become a center for commerce with banks and markets that attracted travelers and merchants from the world over. With so many diverse people coming together for so may varied transactions, human nature prevailed and gossip became another stock in trade. (Act III of Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice" begins with the line, “Now, what news on the Rialto?”)
In the beginning, the commercial activity centered on the San Marco side of the Grand Canal, but it expanded to the opposite bank after the construction of the first boat bridge in the late 1100s. In 1459, the prevailing odors of the pescheria — fish market — along with the ceaseless hawking cries of the fishmongers so annoyed the business people that they prevailed on the authorities to move the market to the opposite side of the Canal, where it remains today.
Before dawn, catch-laden boats tie up at the Campo della Pescheria, close by the Rialto Bridge, to unload their goods, which end up in the myriad stalls that are adjacent to those of the just-as-impressive erbaria, the vegetable market. By early morning, throngs of savvy Venetian shoppers prowl the stalls looking for the prize of the catch, destined for that evening’s dinner.
The sheer abundance and quantity of seafood brings joy to my ichthyophilic heart. Laid out on beds of sparkling ice, fish of all sorts await shopper and tourist alike — flounder, tuna, cod, mackerel, halibut, lobsters, crabs, scallops and clams galore, in all shapes and colors. Or as one of my favorite food writers, Elizabeth David, put it, “In Venice, even ordinary sole and ugly great skate are striped with delicate lilac lights, the sardines shine like newly-minted silver coins, pink Venetian scampi are fat and fresh, infinitely enticing in the early dawn.”
Those glistening sardines are among the denizens of the waters of the lagoon (local catch is labeled "nostrano"). Among the other treasures it yields are monkfish, mullet, anchovies, delectable little soft-shell crabs called moleche, and canestrelli, little scallops. Most fascinating to me are the many varieties of shrimp, the variety and likes of which we rarely see in our home markets: the little schie, the pink gamberi (larger shrimp that we often call prawns) and the well-named canoce, the even-larger mantis shrimp.
These will appear on Venetian menus in much-loved preparations. Several types of seafood will be breaded and fried in the delicious fritto misto. Sardines are bound to appear in a dish called sarde in saor, a favorite in which the fish are cooked in a sweet-and-sour mix of onions, raisins and white-wine vinegar. Look also for the representative pasta of Venice, bigoli (a bit thicker than spaghetti with a hole through the center), often served with a sauce of anchovies and onions. A particularly striking dish features pasta colored black with squid ink, as does a similarly hued risotto.